Why is Rosie O’Donnell so popular? One theory often put forward, sometimes by Rosie herself, is that she reminds us of people from our own lives–a neighbor, or maybe an aunt. But if that’s the case, why were the fans of her recently expired daytime talk show indoors watching TV when they could have been spending time with their neighbors or family members? I can only speak for myself, but none of my aunts acts like Rosie O’Donnell, and if my neighbors did, I’d move.

Rosie was supposedly Our Woman in Hollywood, a fan so devoted that the stars reached down and lifted her into their realm. Celebrity was Rosie’s religion; to her anyone who’d ever been on a television screen was sainted. Rosie was offensive in many ways–her brainless consumerism, her constant shouting, her utter lack of wit, her mulish refusal to admit that she was gay–but the star worship bugged me the most, particularly because it so misrepresented her constituency. Everyday people hate the stars as much as they love them: we may have a few favorites, but we resent the rest, those chosen few so handsomely rewarded for doing so little.

Meager talents like Rosie O’Donnell are nothing new on television. In the 60s and 70s, modestly endowed “personalities” with unconventional looks and a few sturdy gimmicks staffed shows like What’s My Line, The Match Game, The Hollywood Squares, and, most democratically, The Gong Show. These oddballs who turned up on talk shows and game shows, over-the-top one-noters like Charo or Zsa Zsa Gabor, added garish color to the vast wasteland. Traditionally this rung of the show-business ladder has accommodated many performers whose sexuality was a matter of debate: Paul Lynde, Rip Taylor, Liberace, Charles Nelson Reilly. Someone with Rosie’s limited abilities could maintain a solid career on this circuit, but no one would expect her to wind up the head of an entertainment empire.

Low-profile TV spots with limited airtime suited her well, as she proved in the late 80s and early 90s as host of VH1’s Stand-up Spotlight. Her material was dishwater, but she seemed good-natured and had a distinctive look and accent. She spoke clearly and, at that point anyway, never upstaged her guests. She was a good character actor in movies, particularly A League of Their Own; a promotional appearance she made with her costar Madonna on The Arsenio Hall Show became a turning point in her career. Soon she was everywhere, her grinning face on the cover of every magazine, and she narrowed her act into something as familiar and unchanging as a logo.

The Rosie O’Donnell Show was promoted as a family-friendly antidote to trash like The Jerry Springer Show; Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas were constantly cited as models. The year before Rosie’s show debuted, a gay man who’d revealed his secret crush on Jenny Jones was murdered by the object of his affections. No one had to worry about that happening with Rosie’s show. Newsweek dubbed Rosie “the Queen of Nice,” and she neutralized tabloid stories about her lesbianism by masking her sexuality, and all other vestiges of humanity, with an infantile variation on her old persona. If Oprah Winfrey was the serene mother superior and Martha Stewart the homespun CEO, Rosie was the tyrannical two-year-old, self-absorbed and given to unpredictable outbursts. A guest on her show might suddenly be interrupted by her ear-splitting rendition of the theme from Full House, but it was hardly as bad as getting snuffed.

Twice this year Rosie has deviated from her lovable-brat image and shown a desire to become a different kind of media personality. In March she came out to Diane Sawyer on ABC’s Primetime Live, a gambit that was surprisingly successful thanks to shrewd planning and the lessons learned from Ellen DeGeneres. The controversy over DeGeneres’s sexuality in 1997 turned out to be a blow to gay rights: in a cynical ploy to boost the ratings for her failing sitcom, DeGeneres dragged the issue out for months, teasing gay and straight audiences alike and aggravating public tension over homosexuality with her will-she-or-won’t-she drama. (She even made an appearance on Rosie’s show to joke that she was “Lebanese.”) The campaign backfired: afflicted less by homophobia than by its star’s overexposure, Ellen was canceled the following year. In contrast, Rosie made her statement quickly and directly, using it not to promote herself but to protest a Florida law that prohibits gay people from adopting children. Given her track record of self-aggrandizement, her timing and gracefulness were more surprising than the announcement itself.

Less widely reported but far more surprising was Rosie’s stand-up appearance this summer in which she sharply criticized Winfrey, Sharon Stone, Anne Heche, Michael Jackson, and Bill Clinton. She said she saw Jackson at Liza Minnelli’s wedding (“the gayest thing since my last show”) but decided not to talk to him (“I make it a rule not to speak to pedophiles”). She also weighed in on Jackson’s cosmetic surgery: “He’s cream-colored and has no nasal passages whatsoever. He doesn’t look human. Did he look into the mirror one day and say, ‘Perfect?'” Her comments about Bill Clinton were even more blunt. “He disgusts me,” she said. “And I know I’m not supposed to say this because I’m a good Democrat, but I didn’t want to [talk] to him because he lied to me when he said, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman,’ and then put the scarlet-letter blow job on her for the rest of her life.” These are hardly original observations, but as Rosie knows better than anyone, they violate a major rule of Hollywood etiquette–celebrities don’t talk trash about each other in public. Suddenly the biggest phony in showbiz is telling it like it is.

On her talk show, Rosie explained, she “had to be nice to people [she] hated.” Now that the show’s over and she’s come out of the closet, she’s kicking ass and taking names. But the show’s only been off the air for a few weeks. Is this new Rosie really a straight shooter, or is she just trying to expand her audience beyond her housewife base? People don’t always buy it when a celebrity suddenly changes her image, and it’s hard to rail against hypocrisy when your own is so blatant. Rosie’s taken one step down the best path she’s ever faced, but it could lead her in a direction she’s never traveled–out of the spotlight.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Laura Park.